Monday, 25 October 2010

A touch of France in downtown Hackney

Now it probably isn’t the case in France, but it’s quite easy, on this side of the Channel, to get a bit evangelical about food. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for such ‘evangelism’, then foodies here would not have the same choices that they do, particularly given the swamping of British culinary life by supermarkets in the last 40 years.

Broadway Market has a touch of the evangelical about it – not in some sort of proselytising way, but simply by being there in the face of the un-relenting march of supermarkets, and Tesco in particular.

Before the market got underway, I could walk to at least three Tesco stores and two Sainsbury’s. Now, six years on, I don’t know what the figure for Sainsbury’s is, but you can double the one for Tesco.

It wasn't the easiest thing to get up and running. The council initially tried to block the market opening at all – despite their own quarter-baked ‘plans’ over some years failing to produce anything but further evidence of their own incompetence: on one notorious occasion, they tried to start up a Saturday flower market with just a couple of raggedy stalls – despite the presence, just 10 minutes walk south into Tower Hamlets, of the legendary Colombia Flower Market every Sunday!

Yet once the market was established as successful, the council tried to weigh in and take control. Fortunately on this occasion, they maintained their record of failure.

Obviously the market was set up for people to sell their produce – and make money. But there has always been an element of something else in the equation too: a belief in good food; in seasonality; in local produce.

Now local isn’t always easy when you’re in the middle of a big city like London, but it can mean at least looking at produce from within the UK.

Les Trois Moutiers is a small village in the heart of the Loire. Ed and Max, who work at the wonderful French deli, L’eau a La Bouche, on Broadway Market, had been there on holiday and had spent much of their time cooking, thrilled by the produce that they could find on the doorstep.

Thus was born the inspiration for an evening in September that aimed to showcase the very best seasonal produce, sourced from as near to the deli as possible.

Unfortunately, on that first occasion, we were sitting in a train, travelling back through France to Blighty.

But when they announced another such evening for yesterday, I decided to forego the City v Arsenal match (a sound decision, as it turned out) and go with The Other Half L’eau a La Bouche for Les Trois Moutiers II.

We had no idea of what we’d be eating until we arrived – the promise was an aperitif, followed by five courses, each with wine matched by Stephane Cusset, the owner of L’eau a La Bouche.

First up was a wild mushroom consommé – served with tempura mushrooms that were garnished with sea salt. The idea was to eat one of these battered, salty mushrooms and then a spoonful of the soup.

Now I am no expert on consommé – I’m struggling to think of another occasion when I’ve eaten it – and I know that at least two other diners thought it needed further reduction, but the taste hit when I took my first slurp was amazing: intense mushroom flavour; clean and unobscured by anything else. I watched The Other Half’s face as he tried (he loves mushrooms) and saw what I imagine was a reflection of my own expression from a few moments previously.

All the mushrooms came from a specialist mushroom stall on the market.

The dish was paired with a pinot noir – a full-flavoured but light red, with an almost smoky taste coming through: perfect for autumn.

After two courses, Stephane gave us a brief explanation of the first wines, which was really welcome. Indeed, the opportunity to try several wines in one session is something I’ve never done before: it was a fascinating learning curve.

The second course was Alder-smoked eel, with a small poached chicken’s egg, some wilted spinach and a little sausage.

Having built a smokery in a garden to do their own salmon for September’s meal, Ed and Max had asked market fishmonger Vicki to get them an eel. It was, they explained later, “touch and go” and her boat had only got one right at the last minute.

After a earlier practice session, when the eel had slipped everywhere as they’d tried to skin it, this had been smoked on Saturday night (Ed’s dedication to the cause was such that he was doing that instead of celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday – she got to come to the meal with friends though).

It was lovely. The eel was a good texture and the smokiness was nice and light; the sausage was crisp and tasty; the egg perfectly poached and the spinach just wilted enough – very nice combinations.

This was paired with a chardonnay – lovely and light, and developing well with honey coming through.

These descriptions of the wine are only my own impressions: I made a serious effort to really think about each one and understand what the tastes were. Even if I’m not going to write about something, my mind demands that I find words to describe something to myself, so that I can understand and categorise it better.

The main course was belly pork, with braised fennel and puréed potato, with a crab apple sauce on the side, itself topped with two candied fruits.

I was a tad worried about the fennel, given my dentally challenged state, but it was perfect and delightfully easy to eat. The pork (Old Gloucester Spot, from a south-west farmer, via Richard, a farmer himself who has a stall on the market selling his delightful Dartmoor beef) was excellent, with the crackling delicious (I managed to eat that too). The candied crab apples were a surprise delight – and a nod to Halloween.

The fennel and crab apples were apparently from the organic fruit and veg stall on the market.

I seem to have missed the latter being available, after looking for and asking after them for years. My mother’s mother had three trees in her garden and we used to get a couple of carrier bags full every year. My mother would make them into a clear pink jelly that went superbly with sausages.

Stephane provided a wine from Provence with this (explaining that matching wine to fennel is particularly difficult – presumably because of its aniseed taste). It had big berry flavours, with caramel to finish and was scrummy.

Then it was onto the cheese – at least the homemade quince jelly gave the cheese-hating Other Half something to eat with bread while I was noshing at the lovely selection.

I’ve mentioned before that I love Cheddar and that my Cheddar of choice is Davidstow. Recently, on a Saturday expedition to L’eau a La Bouche, Max had given me a taste of some Keen’s Cheddar. That went down well and, having bought some, I spent a week taking shavings off it so that they’d just melt in my (almost) toothless mouth.

On Sunday, we had a Montgomery Cheddar – and wow! Stephane commented when he was introducing the 2005 Bordeaux that went with it (“mostly from Merlot”), that it was a complex taste and – well, wow! Really nutty, but without being dry or too hard.

Then there was a bleu d'Auvergne (a classic French blue; lovely and creamy and with a nice saltiness); a Mont d’Or, a soft seasonal cheese from France (and Switzerland), which is made between 15 August and 15 March, and sold between 10 September and 10 May. Stephane has it in the shop now until just after Christmas. It was dripping off the side of the slate platter on which it was served – and was lovely spread onto thin slices of bread.

And finally, an Italian cheese that Max had bought back from a visit to his mother who lives over there: mild and very pleasant.

Fortunately, none of this was rushed and none of the portions were too big, so I managed to get through everything – including quite a lot of the cheese. I’d never tasted any of them before and all were lovely – with the Montgomery Cheddar a revelation.

And then dessert: a quince sorbet to cleanse the palate, followed by white chocolate and pistachio ice cream with roasted plums. Lovely.

The dessert wine was beautifully sweet – almost honeyish. I leant across to The Other Half and said: “Riversaltes?”

And then Stephane told us it was a 10-year-old Banyuls – and nodded in my direction. Not quite total recognition, but only a few miles out!

Ed and Max emerged to a round of applause – and to tell us a little about the ingredients and the process.

A few minutes later, chatting with a buzzy Ed outside, as he drew on a welcome fag, he explained that not only did the kitchen not have a range – after all, it was only designed with coffee shop catering in mind – it only has one hob, they’d had a power outage at one point and had even used a sandwich toaster as a second ‘hob’ at another stage.

For goodness sake – that’s about the level of the kitchen in the staff canteen where I mostly work, and they don’t manage to produce anything even remotely close to the same quality. Never mind that, the canteen staff are supposed to be trained and, as we found out on Sunday night, neither Ed nor Max are trained cooks.

What they achieved was excellent anyway – given all those considerations, it was bloody remarkable!

We waddled home; full, mellow and very, very satisfied. Les Trois Moutiers II had been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds brilliant and Montgomery and Keens were two of the cheeses that featured in Cheese of the week on Wednesday along with the recipe for Membrilla